What we see goes through our personal filter. I know one fairly paranoid person, for example, who assumes that if people aren’t overtly positive when they interact with him that he has done something wrong.
It never crosses his mind that these people may be preoccupied with other things.
Can you imagine how he feels in a workplace of busy professionals?
On the surface he appears completely pleasant and self-contained. You need to be around him for a while to observe the behavior that reveals his true persona.
Since leaders are neither psychologists (unless it’s their job) nor clairvoyant, the best thing they can do is empathize, so these employees don’t feel shut out.
I picked the example of a paranoid person to dramatize the point. The workplace reality, however, is one where our employees are dealing with so many things seemingly ordinary issues:
+ Being sick and coming to work or working from home so they don’t fall behind;
+ Dealing with a sick child and keeping up with work;
+ Distraction from a personal problem with a spouse;
+ Caring for an aging parent;
+ Anxiety over a teenager’s college applications;
+ Feeling that they’re over their head in their job and no one to talk to;
+ Just learning about a major, chronic illness and not knowing how to deal with it.
You get the picture. What you observe in your people doesn’t always reflect their reality. And they don’t always raise these issues because they are afraid to share vulnerabilities.
Many people develop a great ability to mask whatever is going on below the surface. More than half the time, you wouldn’t even imagine that anything is wrong.
The bottom line is that leaders can’t just assume. Nor should they overtly interfere unless and until the quality of work suffers.
If you want to get a window into what may be happening, ask “how’s life?” instead of a work-related question like “how are you doing on project x?” You may learn something insightful.